The term was coined by Charles Grandison Finney, who in his 1876 book Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, referred to a "burnt district" to denote an area in central and western New York State during the Second Great Awakening. He felt that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no "fuel" (unconverted population) left over to "burn" (convert).
I first encountered references to this phrase in my church history classes in seminary. But unfortunately, I was going through a spell of "young man sorry attitude" and called my seminary classes, "Cemetery Classes" and there is no need to guess to where that lead. SO MUCH of my early education was wasted on my youth!
My first INTEREST in the 'burned over district' was peaked in a trip I had the privilege to take in 2008 to Princeton University as part of a group we had established called the 'Reformation Men's Club (RMC).
We traveled with Covenant Seminary Professor, Dr. David Calhoun. The theme of the weekend retreat was "Grace to Eternity: A History and Vision of Service to Christ's Kingdom."
Dr. Calhoun had authored a two- volume history of the University and Seminary. I had DEVOURED those books and continue to be enamored with the Princetonians to this day. Dr. Calhoun writes, “From 1812 – 1929, Princeton Theological Seminary presented a coherent, continual effort to teach and practice what the Princetonians believed was historic Reformed Christianity. In this they were, in my opinion, successful. They taught theology as they found it in the Bible and it honored the faith and findings of Augustine, Calvin, and the Westminster Standards. They not only taught it, they lived it. They may have made mistakes, but they stood squarely in the great stream of historic Christianity and orthodox Calvinism.”
Our group of 15 men stayed at the historic Nassau Inn in the heart of Palmer’s Square and enjoyed ‘the best spring day of the entire year’ according to a local shop owner. The Cherry trees were in full bloom and showered the campus with snow.
Dr Calhoun began Saturday morning with a history of Princeton before leading the group on a campus tour. This tour included an inspiring lecture in the famous “Oratory” of Alexander Hall. The group also had a pleasant and unscheduled encounter with Dr. Bill Frist, a Princeton Alum and current guest teacher.
In his lecture at Alexander Hall, Dr Calhoun made a few references to the "2nd Great Awakening" and it wasn't in as positive a light as his references to the 1st Great Awakening. I didn't know enough about the topic to understand him.
I had a chance to ask him about it when we toured the Princeton Cemetery that afternoon, on our way to a campus baseball game.
We spoke of Finney, the origin of Mormonism, and many other 'isms' that all came out of that relatively small region of New York state.
And then, the topic drifted away for many years.
Right after Covid struck, I took a little time to read about and pray about revivals. If I am honest, not only do we NEED a revival... I selfishly want my children and grandchildren to SEE what a revival looks like.
As I prayed about this this, I was reminded of God’s glory and His sovereignty. “Revival is a work of God where He enlivens His people by accelerating and intensifying His work in individual’s lives” (Jonathan Edwards). If enough people have this personal renewal at any one time and in any one place, then the reality of God’s presence is demonstrated in spiritual sensitivity and a community pursuit of holiness.
Do we really desire this? Is there not a sense of fear that God would actually do this? Is there not a subtle secret doubt that God actually can or will do this anymore?
J.I. Packer often taught about the history of revivals. He made some interesting points about the nature of revival that come from his study of the theology and thoughts of Jonathan Edwards.
#1 Revival is more about holy living than new conversions.
#2 We cannot pray revival down – we cannot force God’s hand. It happens in His timing.
#3 Revival will not solve all of the churches problems. It can even create more!
#4 Revival is tied up in a deep desire to glorify God.
#5 Revival causes a deep repentance, responding in holy living, which draws outsiders in.
But here is where we have to be VERY CAREFUL! A.W. Tozer argued that "a revival of the current Christianity would be a tragedy which would set the church back a hundred years".
SO I wanted to take some time to fast, pray, and reflect on the societal elements that contributed to the environment of the 'burned over district" and see how it parallels our current day.
The visible church of God is hurting and our young people especially are suffering the consequences ofa moral darkness, sort of an eclipse of God. He IS still shining, just like the sun continues to shine during a solar eclipse, He is hidden, or maybe a better term; 'blocked'. Our people seem to just be gazing at the earth.
All of this can lead us toward a feeling of being burned out.
In David Lyons book on postmodernity, "Jesus in Disneyland", he outlined over two decades ago what would be the results of the rapid, consumer based lifestyle that was quickly taking over culture. He anticipated the war between Church Authority and Cyberspace Authority. He predicted that anarchy would threaten Continuity and Instant Fluidity would hurt the foundations of Community. Do you see it? I do- Individuality over Wholeness ....Fragmentation over Purpose .The destabilization of the post modern movement has put an incredible strain on our society and is paying horrible dividends to our youth. Can anyone but me hear the creaking of broken foundations and fear the weight of sin? If we do not move back to the Church side of this equation, what hope is there for long term success?
What foul dust is going to be left in the wake of the collapse without a massive movement of God's Spirit?
There is no discernible difference inside the American church and outside the American church today. We are guilty of loving the world. We have the same consumerist tendencies, we have the same divorce rate, we have the same pattern of addiction and cynicism. Our lips love Jesus, but our hearts love the world.
Part of the problem stems from a lack of seeing sin as serious. When God commands us to hate sin, He isn't robbing us of fun... He is trying to rescue us from hardship and tragedy!
We also have preached the watered down gospel. To quote Niebur, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."
We also stand as the most biblically illiterate generation in America.
And here is the weird part ..... this is ALL a VERY similar parallel to some of the problems found in the early days of westward expansion at the beginning of the 19th century. The "old" settlements of New England (LOL) were struggling to keep pace with the frontier needs of the west (New York.. another LOL).
There will be differences of course.. but what is the sweet spot that promotes a healthy revival toward God but prevents us from tipping into prohibition and cultism? How do we avoid the ditches of license on the left and legalism on the right?
So, as we dive into this over the next few posts... what can we learn from those days that allow us to embrace the best of times of revival but avoid the trappings as well.
Without prayer and God's grace, we don't have a chance!